Island-hopping in Germany is an unexpected delight

·6-min read
Mainau Island, Germany - Getty
Mainau Island, Germany - Getty

In autumn, bobbing in the middle of Lake Constance, where the sun arcs from the foothills of western Austria and vineyards of southern Germany into Switzerland, you could swear you were adrift in the Mediterranean or Adriatic. The meditative blues are the same, the rigging on the single-masted ships are the same, but the difference is these are views, framed by a distant horizon of mountains, that few Brits ever see.

Did you know that Lake Constance, or the Bodensee as German speakers call it, has a baker’s dozen of islands? I certainly didn’t, and slipping into this scene, by virtue of a Swiss train from Zurich to Romanshorn and onward across the border into Germany by ferry, I realised what a tantalising prospect it all was.

Scheduled boats ping-pong along the fractured lakeside more efficiently than they do in Greece or Croatia; there is a succession of half-timbered towns to discover; as much Cote d’Azur style as you can shake a stick at; and an island for each mood. Plus, down here, the specialty is creating ‘fernweh’, the German essence of pining for unseen places.

Admittedly, Lake Constance is less about fanfare, more about subtlety, and I’d decided to take advantage of the area’s lack of all-comers. Somewhat inexplicably, this watery wonderland is peripheral on German travel itineraries and neglected by both regular visitors to Central Europe like me and by locals too. If you’ve been in the Black Forest or elsewhere in Bavaria, you’ll know the country’s most romantic towns can feel overwhelmed. Not so here.

Steigenberger hotel, Lake Constance
Steigenberger hotel, Lake Constance

At the lake’s southwestern tip on my first night in Konstanz at the exquisite Steigenberger hotel, a one-time monastery on Dominicans Island, I wondered why the waterfront terrace was empty, despite the lake’s riviera glow. “Pah!” said manager Thomas Swieca, dismissively. “Most Germans couldn’t pinpoint us on a map. Tonight, the lake’s yours.” The pleasure of almost being part of its secret was immense.

Lake Constance is fed by the Rhine and encircled by mostly sloping foothills, burnt green in the summer and snow white in the winter. The part I had started my trip on, in the lake’s western reaches, is known for Mainau Island, an ornamental botanical garden invaded by perennials and alpine flowers. Like an Alcatraz with azaleas, it’s wild enough that you can get lost amid an arboretum of unbroken Chinese redwoods, then find sheep grazing in the shade of the lakefront vineyard.

The Germans love their forests — the national obsession is so great that, like the Japanese with ‘shinrin yoku’, they embrace ‘waldeinsamkeit’, or solitude with the forest — and it’s not uncommon to see an extended family surrounded by drooping branches, capturing a photograph. In the Mediterranean, I often find myself peering at ruins and dusty information panels. This was different. Stretching my eyes across Mainau’s meadowsweet landscapes was far more rewarding.

View across the island of Lindau to the Austrian Alps in the distance - Juergen Sack/Getty
View across the island of Lindau to the Austrian Alps in the distance - Juergen Sack/Getty

There is little chance of staying in Mainau’s showpiece baroque castle. It’s the home of Count Björn Bernadotte who co-runs the place with Countess Bettina Bernadotte of Wisborg, but there are restaurants and cafes with plenty of old school beer garden identity to linger at in T-shirt weather. Spend the day as I did, and there is more than enough time for a mustard-smeared bratwurst and steins of beer in the sun.

As the ferries chugged between the island and borderlands of Central Europe, I plotted my next move from the quayside. The challenge for the time-pressed traveller is to work out what to miss. There is Reichneau, a monastic island known for its tilled fields and Unesco-worthy abbey with bicycle paths to explore it all. Then, Triboldingerbohl, an uninhabited marsh island that forms part of the Wollmatinger Ried wetland wildlife reserve. Here, the freshwater is home to bolshy whooper swans and grey herons; the reed-belted shores the haunt of curlews, tits and red-tufted pochards.

The next morning, I opted to catch the M/S Karlsruhe along the lake’s northern bank towards the island of Lindau, stopping off in the toy box town of Meersburg. Here, vineyards pitch towards the lake and the wines, cheap by anyone’s standards at around €3.50 a glass, are an invitation to take the rest of the day off. There is a 6km wine hiking trail through the vineyards, but I made do with a mosey around its Disney castle (the oldest in Germany, I was told) and sampling tongue-twisting white wines like Spätburgunder Weißherbst at the august Staatsweingut Meersburg above the harbour. When the sun came out, its vineyards took on a whole different look, the deep dark grooves of green meeting the brilliant blue of the lake head on. Before it was too late, I caught the last ferry east. A few hours of exploration that day justified another glass on deck.

Lindau Lake Constance - Getty
Lindau Lake Constance - Getty

Only by boat do you really appreciate the idiosyncratic port towns and islands and by the time I’d reached Lindau that night, fishermen sat silently on the quayside and the town’s courtyards were ghostly quiet. It was in sharp contrast to the following morning when the island took on a regatta-like feel and the lighthouse and Bavarian Lion sculpture that bookend the harbour began to draw a trickle of like-minded tourists. Like me, they surely felt as if they’d discovered the island town for themselves.

And what a place to discover. If Lake Constance is where you can fill up on nice-as-pie history, culture, food and wine without the crowds, then lake-locked Lindau is its honeypot. There is lots to recommend here: take in a puppet opera show; join the locals in Lindenhofpark with a boozy picnic; stroll the promenade with the sea gulls. Or do as I did. Sit in a waterside café, as though suspended in time, looking out to the lake and absorbing its spooling blues so you can take them home with you.

How to do it

The Bodensee Card PLUS offers use of passenger ferries, as well as more than 160 activities around the lake. From €72 (£61) for three days. BSB (Bodensee-Schifffahrt) operates a daily schedule from all landing points on the lakeside from March to October (bsb.de/en). British Airways flies to Zurich from £37 each way (britishairways.com). EasyJet flies to Friedrichshafen from £30.99 each way (easyjet.com). Doubles at Steigenberger Inselhotel Konstanz, B&B, from £133 (steigenberger.com).

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